In this space we have recently discussed various ways in which the city is grappling with revenue shortfalls for schools and basic city services and have pointed out spending that we consider imprudent, such as the $15.3 million spent on the new Charles Houston recreation center. We have encouraged the city to seek new revenue sources and not be so reliant on local property taxes.
As property values and thus the citys revenue base have dropped, city officials have taken the initiative in seeking new funding sources. While in general we favor spending restraint over increased taxes, we do applaud the citys move to diversify the revenue stream. Thus, in the FY 09 budget, the city included $11.6 million in new revenues from changes in tax and fee rates. The bulk of this came from a 1.5-cent increase in the property tax rate, but the budget also contained $194,000 in new funding from an increase in Board of Architectural Review fees.
In general, an increase in BAR fees for some projects was probably warranted. But the tenfold increase in fees for BAR applications for non-residential signs from $50 to $500 has put an excessive burden on nonprofit organizations and small businesses. These are entities that for the most part are already struggling to stay afloat in the current difficult economy.
On face value it was a reasonable increase. The cost to the city to review and process applications for large, elaborate signs that require extensive staff time and numerous revisions is certainly worth more than $50. But the fact is this increase negatively and disproportionately impacts nonprofits and small businesses. This was surely not the intent of city staff and city council, but rather an unintended consequence of a government action taken for a good reason.
The negative impact of this action was made clear when the local nonprofit Volunteer Alexandria (an organization that tries to match volunteers with volunteer opportunities) recently moved in with the Alexandria Red Cross in a cost-saving measure. This move seemed like a win-win situation for two very useful organizations. However, when these organizations applied for permission to put up new signs, they were told by the city they would have to pay the $500 fee a cost that Volunteer Alexandria found prohibitive. As a result, they currently have no sign, making it more difficult for people to volunteer at just the time when theyre needed most.
Similarly, someone who wants to start a small business and put out a basic sign shouldnt have to pay the same $500 BAR fee as someone who is opening a large corporation or hotel with elaborate street signage.
Fortunately, there seem to be several common-sense solutions to this dilemma. The first would be to put a fourth category in the BAR fee structure for signage. Where there are currently fees for residential sign applications ($250), non-residential ($500), and for development site plans and special use permits ($2,500), a fourth category should be created for nonprofits at a much lower fee rate. In addition, there should be more signage categories that only require administrative approval (which costs $150 for non-residential items). This latter change would make it far less onerous for small business owners who simply want to hang a simple shingle announcing their existence.
Thankfully, this issue is one that some city officials seem intent on rectifying. At the forum on April 2 for City Council candidates, there was discussion on the need to reduce this fee burden on nonprofits and small businesses. We are hopeful that a solution is found sooner rather than later, so that businesses and nonprofits can put out signs and, just as important, feel that their city is working with and not against them.